Beyond the Benefit: Ten Ways Artists Can Help Build and Support Movements

(updated June 2018)

On a personal level, things are stressful right now. I know I’m not alone in that. A lot of us are trying to figure out how to best use whatever power, resources, or skills that we have to help make a difference. So I’m thinking about the artist’s role in helping to build a mass movement.

Of course, building a mass movement is everyone’s job, and everyone has to figure out how best to leverage their strengths, passions, resources, access, etc. to contribute to the larger struggle. I think of teachers shifting their lesson plans in order to talk about current events. I think of religious leaders doing the same thing during their sermons. I think of workers organizing anti-oppression committees or even just book clubs in their workplaces. I think of athletes wearing #blacklivesmatter shirts and refusing to be silent. I think of online communities. I think of students. I think of young people. Everyone has some kind of power or access to space that can help this movement grow.

When it comes to artists, this conversation usually begins and ends with our art. People talk about the power of narrative and framing, the power to make the abstract concrete, the power to touch people on an emotional level and transcend petty campaign politics. And I’m with that. But that’s not the conversation that I want to have here. Because I believe that as artists, we have more to offer than our art.

I’m not asking artists to take leadership roles in social movements they may or may not know much about. I’m also not asking anyone to radically change their style or preferred subject matter, or be someone that they’re not. I’m just saying that artists occupy strategically useful spaces in our communities, and have access to resources that can really help movements grow. In a perfect world, we’d all get directly involved in activist campaigns, but I know that reality doesn’t always allow that to happen. So I’m trying to think of spaces of synergy. We can cheerlead stuff when it happens. But we can also use our platforms to help make stuff happen.

What follows are ten ideas or potential starting points for how artists can support movements:

1. Commit and Get Connected
For me, this is first. This work has to be an intentional commitment, not just some stuff we maybe do if someone happens to ask us to do it. Look at your calendar, from the top of August to the top of November. Are there particular opportunities that stand out? Really big shows? Tours? Interviews? All I’m saying here is have a plan, even if it’s not 100% set-in-stone.

This also means getting connected. As artists, some of us have no idea what we’re talking about, and that’s okay. Some of us are super uncomfortable talking about things outside our comfort zone, and that’s also okay. I want us all to educate ourselves, but more than that, I want us to connect to people who already know their stuff: organizers. I posted this piece linking to a bunch of different local organizations doing racial justice work; there’s also this link which includes the info of a LOT of good organizations in the Twin Cities. That could be a start. Googling stuff could be a start. But find the people in your community who are doing the work, and get in the loop– whether by following them on social media, reaching out via email, or showing up to actions.

2. To Get This Out of The Way: Yes, Raising Money Matters Too
The title of this piece is not saying that artists shouldn’t play benefit shows; it’s saying that we can do a lot more than that. That being said, raising money for organizations, campaigns, and projects can be a very powerful action. So, if this is something you are able to do, get in touch with activist organizations and make yourself available; sometimes, that means playing a political fundraiser, and other times it means taking a space that isn’t political and doing the work there anyway. Here’s a piece I wrote a while back sharing some tips and tactics regarding how we put together benefit shows: Artist-Activist Partnerships: Five Tips for Booking Your Benefit.

3. Intentional Signal-Boosting
I think that the baseline here is to find people who know what they’re talking about, follow them on social media and/or in real life, and help boost their voices. Beyond that, though, the key word is intentionality. Retweeting people who know what they’re talking about is good. Posting links to articles we think people should read is good. But I think a lot of this is done haphazardly– we happen to see something, and then happen to RT it. But a little extra thought can go a long way. A few tactics:

  • Make more of an effort to signal-boost on-the-ground activists and not just media talking-heads. The latter group can have some great analysis, but boosting the voices of the people in the trenches is important. This also relates to making sure that we’re signal-boosting the people who are directly affected by the issue (for example, Matt McGorry might have something good to say about intersectionality, but so do a lot of Black women, who have been saying good things).
  • Create a Twitter list or activists and organizations that you can check regularly for good stuff to retweet.
  • Whenever an artist with a lot of followers speaks out about an issue, that’s good. But I also think that there is a continuum of value at play. Posting a statement or a rant is good. Posting a rant with a link to an article with more information is maybe better. Posting a rant with a link to an article and info on an upcoming action is better still. I wrote about this idea  the continuum of hot-takes, if you will here.
  • There are weeks when I don’t post anything self-promotional. Just links and resources. And yeah, I lose some followers who aren’t trying to hear that stuff, but I gain more. This isn’t just altruism. Especially with how Facebook’s algorithm works today (explicitly self-promotional posts are more likely to stay invisible to fans); posting about current events and struggles just makes sense.

4. Using Artist Space as Activist Space
The average club show is 4-5 hours long. If you have 3-4 acts on the bill, there is still plenty of time to be creative with how that space is used. The most obvious thing is to share the mic  invite local activists to speak between sets and promote what they’re doing. Set them up with a table next to the merch table. This should be a regular, expected occurrence at shows.

We can also be more creative. I mean, you can do a lot with an hour of stage time. Most of us just perform for an hour, maybe with some awkward banter between songs/poems. But what else can we do? Some of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had on stage have been when I’ve decided to not just do my ten best songs or whatever, and really try to connect to the audience, to have a conversation, to do something together beyond “look at me for an hour because I’m great.”

At one show, we took a big chalkboard and I asked audience members to write down actions they could take regarding police brutality and the prison-industrial complex. This was during those twenty minutes at every show between the listed start-time and the actual start-time. By the time we did start the show, the board was full of ideas. I’m not saying that that’s the most transformative thing you can do on stage, but I think it is an example of how breaking the fourth wall and being more interactive can really add to the power of an event. Have a discussion. Play a short video. Stage theatrical disruptions. Be creative. We frown upon teachers who just lecture for an hour straight; I think we can hold performing artists to a similar standard.

We can also re-think the idea of the merch table. Yes, you have your CDs, vinyl and shirts. But it’s such a simple thing to also include handouts, literature, petitions, voter registration clipboards, or whatever else from local organizers. Again, this is not any kind of radical reconceptualization of how we do our work. This is easy, but stuff like this can make a difference– especially in the context of the next point.

5. A Tour Is Never Just a Tour
Let’s think critically about the power that we have as touring artists. To use my community as an example: we know that in elections, cities (especially the TC) generally vote progressive, and the suburbs and rural areas generally don’t. Obviously, a lot of this has to with demographics, but there’s also the fact that progressive campaigns are easier to organize in big cities. So who has access to thousands of people outside of the metro area? Touring artists. When we play shows in Bemidji or Brainerd or Winona or Duluth or Rochester or St. Cloud or Morris or wherever (including the Twin Cities, because we shouldn’t make the assumption that everyone here is “already down,” because they’re not), that’s a tremendous opportunity. We can connect to activists in those cities too, and figure out how we might help boost their efforts. Touring artists have the potential to reach and influence thousands of potential voters and potential activists– especially if the previous two points are involved.

6. Shoot a PSA
If you’re even a halfway-successful artist, people are paying attention to you. People like some aspect of what you’re about. Maybe they just think you’re cute. Maybe they think you’re brilliant. Maybe they just like you because their friends like you  it doesn’t matter. You can take advantage of your position by shooting a simple PSA, even just on your phone or laptop. It can be short and informal (just asking people to, for example, vote yes on the $15 minimum wage referendum), or super well thought-out like a speech or TEDx Talk or whatever. I’ve done this before, and plan on doing more. Where social media posts are somewhat transitory, a video might have longer “legs” in terms of getting seen by more and more people.

7. Remember that Networks Aren’t Just About Social Media
When we talk about signal-boosting and network-sharing, it’s easy to focus on social media. But as artists, our networks run deeper than our likes and followers. We can mobilize people. When we’ve made connections to organizations, maybe played a fundraiser or two, done some signal-boosting, etc. – these partnerships can evolve into something deeper and stronger. This will look different in different contexts; maybe the point here is that we have to be open to ideas, strategies, and actions that don’t fit neatly into a ten-point bullet point list.

Projects, initiatives, and campaigns pop up all the time, and being plugged in already is vital to being able to truly support them in ways that transcend signal-boosting. I know this point is a little more abstract than the others, but we’re talking about what it means to really be part of a community, as opposed to just applauding that community. I’ve also written about this before: “In Defense of ‘Local’ Artists.” Part of the work is being ready to answer when you are called.

8. Don’t Be Afraid to Be Timely Instead of Timeless
All of the points on this list can be acted upon even if you’re not a super political artist. From navel-gazing indie bands to party rappers to club DJs  everyone can do this work. Sometimes the most effective “political” events aren’t actually explicitly political; if you can get people to come to a show who don’t care about the issues, and then make those issues part of that show, you’re reaching a valuable audience.

Art is beautiful and important, but I really believe that it’s the relationships around the art, the community built by art, and the networks cultivated by art that matter even more. That being said, we are artists, and one thing that we can always do is make art about the issues that we care about. Especially if you’re one of those aforementioned artists who isn’t known for being politicalthat just means you can make a bigger splash when you do release a song that grapples with an issue.

It would be beyond the scope of this piece to really dig into what makes political art more effective vs. less effective (here are some thoughts on that). Use your style, your voice, your perspective. Don’t try to speak for other people; tackle issues from your own position. Think about who your audience is and how you might reach them. Those were all questions on our mind when we made the Post-Post-Race album. I’d love to see more artists doing project-length stuff like that, but even just a random soundcloud single is an option. Collaborate. Experiment. Have fun.

9. Lead by Example
This is a point that transcends election season, but how can we use our position(s) in the community to fight for lasting political and cultural change? What might it mean if artists refuse to play venues that have bad reputations in terms of their staff/security’s relationship with patrons of color? Or refuse to play venues that don’t offer gender-neutral restrooms? Or refuse to jump on a bill or sit on a panel when everyone is white? Or male? What might it mean to hold your local media, venues, radio, etc. accountable? This will look different in different scenes, of course. It can also be proactive instead of reactive: what might it look like to collaborate across genres and scenes on a community-oriented project? What might it look like to invest in alternative media or other local systems/structures? How can we do more to pass on skills and opportunities to the next generation? The possibilities are endless.

10. Dive In and Get Involved
This won’t be an option for everyone, but the best way to make a difference is still to just show up and get engaged. Join an organization. Go to meetings. As artists, we have a lot of useful skills (press/media relations, flyer design, web/social media management, systems thinking, speechwriting, event organizing, and much more) that might only get a chance to be fully activated if we’re down there in the streets with the activists and organizers who really fuel this movement. Make banners. Write chants. Write press releases.

Activism is about relationships. Even if you can’t formally sign on and attend weekly meetings, those relationships are vital. That kind of brings us full-circle back to point #1. Connect. If nothing else, connect. Shout to Ricardo Levins Morales, Juxtaposition Arts, TruArtSpeaks, Intermedia Arts, Voices for Racial Justice’s Youth Cultural Organizing Institute, Rogue Citizen, and everyone else doing cool work around the intersections of art, social justice, and movement building (feel free to add more in the comments).

Again, the key word in all of this is “intentional.” A lot of artists are on some “I don’t want to be preachy; my music encourages people to think for themselves.” But right now, in 2016, in the world we live in? That feels like a cop-out. It feels like wasted potential. It feels like, to paraphrase Howard Zinn, trying to stand still on a moving train. Sharing resources isn’t being preachy. Connecting your art to movement-building efforts doesn’t make you self-important. It’s just a concrete, effective way to leverage the fact that we have audiences, audiences that activist movements can’t always reach as easily. That’s power– and it means nothing if it isn’t acted upon. “Doing good work” is easy. “Building a movement” takes more than that, and I hope that the communities through which I move are up to the challenge.

illustration by Jon Hunt & Kahlil Brewington

Definitely open to hearing more thoughts and ideas in the comments. I’d also like to end this with an interesting example of an arts organization taking the initiative to help shift the culture, especially considering their audience: check out Pollen’s “In Memoriam of Philando Castile.” This project includes the work of many incredible MN artists, all using their art in different ways to respond to this injustice, imagine a better world, and call that world into being.